The Beach Boys’ unfinished follow up to their beloved Pet Sounds album, Smile, will be released officially for the first time in November according to Capitol/EMI records. The incomplete sessions have floated around as bootlegs for 44 years. Brian Wilson, who suffered a breakdown during the recording of the album, re-recorded a number of the songs as a solo album in 2004.
That album, also called Smile, represents perhaps the most complete version of what was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, not to mention the apogee of the psychedelic era. Mr. Wilson’s scratchy voice has lost some of its angelic allure, but buried within is the suggestion of a classic collection of songs.
Back in 1966, Mr. Wilson called Smile his “teenage symphony to God.”
The album contains orchestral song cycles about the natural elements intermixed with narrative pieces about the landing on Plymouth Rock with sporadic, more characteristic rock & roll numbers about surfing and small town life thrown in. A number of the songs that were begun during the Smile sessions ended up on other Beach Boys albums—including “Vegetables,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Good Vibrations” and the masterful “Surf’s Up.” The myths surrounding the songs are nearly as intriguing as the compositions themselves: Mr. Wilson, unstable and collapsing under the pressure of the relentless recording sessions, built a sandbox around his piano to help with the writing process; tawdry behavior overwhelmed the band as they recorded “Fire” well into the night; strangest of all is the story that Mr. Wilson, driving in his car on the way to the studio, heard the just-released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the radio, pulled over to the side of the road, and declared after months of work the Smile sessions were over.
Whether Smile is a masterpiece or simply the unfulfilled promise of one of the great American composers is up in the air. The album, as it was meant to be, will forever remain incomplete. That said, the music that is available from Smile is an intriguing glimpse into the mind of—to borrow a phrase from one of the album’s lyrics—a “broken man too tough to cry.” Have a listen to the demo version of “Surf’s Up.” Elvis Costello once compared it to discovering an original recording of Mozart in performance.